President Trump it seems, has given us permission to backslide with our thinking about climate change. Until we have rule or law that tells us we must do something about climate pollution, “those that would rather it not be real” have won. This allows the debate to rage encouraging doubt. The Clean Power Plan and Paris Commitments to decrease emissions now seem quite unlikely. Prose about “good” climate change is making resurgence. It seems, they say, that a little warming might not be so bad as this completely aberrant winter season has apparently revealed to some. Closer inspection of impacts already happening on this great planet however, yields a somewhat different reality.
Twenty percent of western North American forests are 60 to 90 percent killed because of a native pine bark beetle driven berserk because of warming. This is 89 million acres of forest. The beetle in question is on the decline because its predominant prey (lodgepole pine) no longer exists in large enough stands to carry on the pandemic. Now, four new (native) beetles adapted to spruce and fir, and several species of budworm, are attacking in what are likely never before seen epidemic proportions.
The Western U.S. wildfire season has increased by over 60 percent since the 1970s, from 138 days to 222 days. Spring arrives 30 days sooner, with its proportional decrease in the onset of winter, has created a warm season that is now nearly twice what it was in our old climate. As a consequences, the average wildfire burn time has increased nearly 800 percent from 6 days to 52 days. Burned area increased an astonishing 12 times (1,271 percent). Human-caused ignition played a very small role in these increasing wildfire trends. Work from the Universities of University of Arizona and Alaska , based on two million tree rings, says that high altitude forest of western North America have passed a tipping point where they are no longer absorbing carbon, but emitting it.
The Amazon, the greatest terrestrial carbon sink on the planet, is also, already, no longer absorbing CO2. It began in 2005 with a 100-year drought. Then in 2010, there was another even more extreme drought. Billions (with a “B”) of trees were killed. Research on the subject, led by the University of Exeter in the UK in 2016, says the Amazon is emitting (not absorbing) 257 megatons of CO2 annually; more than half of Brazil’s annual emissions.
An American Meteorological Society special report in 2016 says; “Without exception, all the heat-related events studied in this year’s report were found to have been made more intense or likely due to human-induced climate change, and this was discernible even for those events strongly influenced by the 2015 El Niño.” They also say that human-caused “anthropogenic” influence was documented in 23 of 28 major global geographic regions.
The Gulf Stream is shutting down, so says researchers at the National Oceanography Center in the UK. The reduction has been seven percent per year (2008 to 2012) for a total of 31 percent reduction or 6.5 cubic miles of water per day. The cause is a giant pool of buoyant fresh meltwater from Greenland that has accumulated in the western North Atlantic off of Newfoundland and is partially blocking the flow of the Stream. The pool is fed by ice loss from Greenland that has increase over 500 percent between 2000 to 2012. This Alaska sized pool has actually cooled 1.4 C below preindustrial times because of the cold meltwater accumulation.
Antarctica was not supposed to begin losing ice until after 2100, so said the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report (IPCC). The IPCC is the international nongovernmental organization that creates a global summary of climate science for the previous seven years. In 2013, they published their fifth report and it said that Antarctica has now begun to lose ice, almost as much as Greenland.
But it’s not that Antarctica has just begun to lose ice. First publishing on positive Antarctic ice loss happened in 1994. The deal with the IPCC, and the IPCC is the climate science organization that most influences global climate policy, is that they are a consensus organization. What this means is; ask more than one expert of any kind for a statement that all asked can agree upon, and a compromise happens. The IPCC is made up of over 800 climate scientist volunteers with scores needing to come to consensus on most of the issues they report. There are numerous academic publications evaluating the IPCC reports over time that prove out this assertion.
Most astonishing of all understatements by the IPCC concerns the single most important issue in climate science: sea level rise. The IPCC’s statements on sea level rise have been quite consistent over the years ranging from 2 to 3 feet. But the IPCC is very careful to caveat their statements broadly with discussion that “dynamical collapse” could increase these rates appreciably. “Dynamical collapse” is abrupt and irreversible ice sheet collapse. The IPCC does not report on dynamical ice sheet collapse because it has previously been unmodelable. Science has just not known enough about these transient prehistoric events to be able to say. Because policy is only based on future climate projections, and we cannot model ice sheet collapse, we have no way to predict future occurrence. So abrupt ice sheet collapse, or dynamical ice sheet collapse, is simply not included in climate consensus statements or climate policy.
Prehistoric evidence however, shows 10 to 20 feet of sea level rise per century in numerous lines of research with the most extreme at 6 to 10 feet in 12 to 24 years. But the IPCC uses only what can be thought of as ice cube melt modeling. Ice cube melt does not capture the dynamical collapse physics where the ice sheet basically shatters and flows into the ocean really big like a bag of partially melted crushed ice flows from the bag into a really big ice chest.
Some of the newest science shows that sea level rise from collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, as viewed through never before modeled ice sheet collapse physics, is finally beginning to approach the rate seen in prehistory of 10 to 20 feet per century. NOAA has even (spring 2016, Insurance Journal Conference) stated that in the very near future we can expect to see modelling under current climate change scenarios of up to 10 feet of sea level rise by 2050 to 2060. And an important note: these sea level rise jumps happened on Earth with twice as much as ice on it as today. Sea level at the depths of the ice ages was 400 feet or more lower than it is today. But today, we still have over 300 feet sea level rise of ice locked up in ice sheets. The risk may not be the same, but they are, as scientists call them – outsized.
The time to “point of no return” for collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has also now been modeled. More new physics modeling reveals unrecoverable ice sheet collapse has an initiation period where collapse gets ramped up until it reaches critical mass and cannot be stopped. This work out of the German national science institute and edited by a Princeton researcher, shows that if we can return upper ocean heat content to zero warming by 2050 to 2060, we can likely avoid the complete initiation of irreversible collapse with 10 to 20 feet of rise per century for centuries on end.
The big picture interpretation here is that IPCC says the maximum adaptable sea level rise rate is 3 feet per century. What this means is that at rates higher than 3 feet per century, we cannot build our way up fast enough and this will cause economic collapse. When considering that much if not most of our world’s infrastructure has critical components that are below 10 feet above current sea level, the depth of this economic collapse becomes apparent.
In summary; A little bit of warming may seem like a good deal in midwinter when we are enjoying spring-like weather, or in early spring when we are enjoying early summer like weather. But our current climate is literally as warm as it has been in millions of years. There is no record of a significantly warmer climate, on Earth as we know it today, with two oceans divided by the Isthmus of Panama (3 million years ago), and most of the Earth’s land located in the Northern Hemisphere. Yes it’s been warmer at times in the past, but the continental plate locations are very important to the physics of how warm Earth is with a given load of CO2. And the two ocean system we have now also matters immensely because of how ocean currents bury heat, or don’t bury it, as their currents do or do not dive into the abyss to cycle around the globe for 1,000 years before returning to daylight.
These physics things matter a great deal and the orbital physics that have regulated Earth’s climate through ten ice ages in the last million years say that today’s climate should actually be cooling. It should be 1 to 2 degrees C cooler than it was at its peak about 6,000 years ago, and it actually was cooling until about 200 years ago. But it is not the slow ice cube/glacial type changes that matters, it’s the extremes.
I was talking with Texas’ State Climatologist the other day. He told me that they had modeled the PMP for 5 to 6 C of warming. The “PMP” is the Possible Maximum Precipitation—which is exactly as it sounds: the most it could possibly rain, all things being maximized. On a warmer world, we push the weather envelopes towards these maximums.
In Austin, the 6-hour, 100 year storm (in our old climate) is 7.1 inches and the 6-hour, 500-year storm for Austin is 8 inches. The 6-hour PMP for Austin in our old climate is 31 inches. The PMP with 5 to 6 degrees C warming is a good bit over 70 inches—of rain—in 6 hours. In 2015 in Austin, we had a big flood on Onion Creek that our City’s chief hydrologist said had three bulls-eyes with a rating of 1,700, 2,100 and 2,300-years return period (about 12 inches.)
How warm is 5 to 6 C of warming in? In Austin, we had an outlandish 90 days of 100 degree heat. Almost as much as the Sonoran Desert Research Station in Arizona. About three times warmer than that. The average number of 100-degree days during the 20th century was 10.4. The 30-year average 1980 to 2010 was 20.1. The 16 year average 2000 through 2016 is 31.1.
We need to remember three things about climate change. One is that the numbers we hear on the news, or in the documentaries, or from our favorite environmental blog—these are all averages. It’s not the averages that matter. The second thing that we must keep in mind is that the climate we are experiencing today is tempered by the coolness of the oceans. If today’s average global temperature and extreme weather were caused by global warming gases in equilibrium with the oceans—where the oceans and atmosphere were not grandly out of balance as they are today after we have so rapidly been emitting extra greenhouse gasses, the CO2 concentration would be about 320 ppm, not the 400 ppm that it actually is. This is only 15 percent above where CO2 was in preindustrial times.We are 43 percent, or almost three times that today.
In other words, our climate lags the CO2 concentration – today we are enduring warming that is about equal to the CO2 concentration in the 1960s. Since that time, we have emitted as much CO2 as we emitted in the previous 230 years. The third thing is that, if we are to believe the nascent ice sheet collapse physics coming out of academia today, and we really have no reason to believe that this new work is anything but understating because of the robust prehistoric evidence of 10 to 20 feet of rise per century for centuries on end, there is likely no “safe” Earth warmer than it was before mankind began enriching our atmosphere with ancient CO2.
Bruce Melton Bio: Bruce Melton is a professional engineer, environmental researcher, filmmaker, author, and director of the Climate Change Now Initiative in Austin, Texas. The Climate Change Now Initiative is a nonprofit outreach organization reporting the latest discoveries in climate science in plain English. The Initiative’s outreach incorporates the latest techniques in the emerging discipline of global warming psychology. Their knowledge base with over 400 articles on recent climate science, experimental climate adventure music documentaries, and the music of the band Climate Change, can be found at ClimateDiscovery.org.